In early 1995, about 2 months into the first year of my A levels, my French teacher took me to one side and gave me a piece of honest advice. 

“Paul, you suck at this. Your speaking & listening is ok, but your grammar and understanding of tenses is awful. You need to go and do something else if you want to get good enough grades for University” 

It was hard to take but refreshingly honest. I knew from the test scores where he was coming from but being told you are below par at seventeen is always going to stick with you. The jump from GCSE was simply beyond me and my strengths clearly lay elsewhere. My daydreams of spending my twenties dropping into French villages and sweet talking the locals into giving me all their cheese were going to have to wait.

I was very lucky in that my college had a fairly varied curriculum provision at the time and after a couple of meetings with student services, I was funneled towards a qualification I had never even heard of before: Communication Studies. 

A now defunct qualification which was the forerunner of the controversial ‘Communication and Culture Studies’ (see furious Daily Mail headlines about A Levels in studying pop music & teenage haircuts for details) it quickly became my favourite study subject. As a student, when you find something that switches that magic light bulb on, it stays with you for a long time and my three doses a week timetable of CS definitely did that. 

At the junction where Media Studies, Sociology, Politics, Ethics, Psychology and English Language all collide, CS held a niche place for its students to not only question the world around them, but to develop an understanding of what drives us human types into doing the type of things we do on a day to day basis. 

Studying both inter & intrapersonal communication we were given a fantastic glimpse of not only what it is that helps us make connections with audiences, but also what makes them tick when we aren’t trying to inform/educate/entertain them. For a theatre bod like me, the whole subject was manna from heaven. 

One of the things that engaged me the most was the many models that psychologists over the years have penned to try and explain away all that bizarre human behaviour which us writers have such a fun time scribbling down on bits of paper ourselves. One such model is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and it was easily my favourite diagram of all time. Ever. (What? Some people like YouTube videos of Badgers skateboarding – I happen to like theoretical psychology diagrams. So sue me. ) 

The pyramid details our very base psychological needs – showing how once we have nailed heating, food & shelter, that we start to look for more social needs and eventually reach ‘self actualisation’ meeting our own human potential. Fun eh? 

Maslow – my secret bromance

This model has stayed with me through these last 22 years (22? Wow, I must be ancient by now) and even now I find myself drawn to Maslow’s simple version of working through life, building up step by step.

I mean, if life was only that simple! You wake up each morning – check you still have a roof, eat some grub, get a little affection from the one you love, go to the pub, have a few pints with your mates, then come up with an idea for an Oscar winning screenplay. Sorted.

Okay, in practice it may not always work out that way, but the idea of starting at the bottom and working up is a principle that’s really helpful when we’re trying to figure out the needs of our pupils. If you’ve gone through teacher training at any point in the last few years, you’ll have had various theories and teaching models thrown at you; Blooms taxonomy, Dale’s cone, Renzulli’s enrichment triad (The latter is SO exciting when its filled in with pretty colours. Go on, look it up, its lovely) – the list goes on. 

While I was Head of Department in a high school, the expectations of us in team Drama were fairly varied, but ultimately as a group we were tasked with sitting down together and boiling what we were hoping to achieve down into the following five areas. With a bit of tweaking here and there we managed to shoe horn in the requirements of the exam board, the overall aims of the school passed down to us by SLT and most importantly the needs of the kids that we were trying to engage with. Maslow and I were now working together. I had reached the top of my own pyramid. 

Maslow II : The dramatic return

Being so very colourful and pretty it got stuck on the wall in the drama studio next to my desk. It meant I had a simple reminder of why I was running myself through the mill every day, but I also got a secret daily hit with my diagram fetish. (Alright, I’ll admit it – I may have a problem) 

Did it serve any real use to pupils? Probably no. It’s not like you can thrust a picture of a triangle up the nose of a twelve year old drama pupil and say –

“Look – you’re there. Halfway up a pyramid. You’ll move one step closer to self actualization when you gain a greater sense of emotional literacy. Now come on, learn your lines”. 

Well, you could, but you might also have said twelve year old telling you where to stick it. 

These models are of course much more about us developing our own personal pedagogy and how it relates to our teaching. Just like most things in education, we tend to approach these things backwards, choosing to hand out all this information about teaching models to trainees or NQT’s as part of a forests worth of handouts, only for them to sit in a box file, never to be looked at again. Teaching models were handed out during my PGCE year like they were candy bars and if I’m being honest I kept them simply to bulk up my folder and rightly so. At that point I had no real teaching experience to relate it to  – how could I possibly have hoped to understand where it could be useful back then? 

Let’s go back to my main man Maslow. (This is now officially a proper man crush). You can take the principles in the original model and apply them pretty much across the board with a little bit of creative thinking in a variety of subject areas. Get a sturdy base and then work up from there. You want to engage your pupils in P.E? Get the basics right and you’ll have elite athletes flocking out of your departments before you know it. 

Maslow III : Physical exertions

The big question comes when we start to think about application for pupils. Can we share this somehow with the kids? 

Well, in some cases this style of model has been used within the classroom for years but this next one will quite literally turn your world upside down. The good old punctuation pyramid; the staple of SPAG preparation; the English departments go-to display model; the one we’ve been using with pupils for years to explain the variety and breadth of writing signage they can use with their work is… utterly upside down. Well, it is in my new, improved version of the world. 

So I’ve fixed it. 

You’re welcome.

Maslow IV : The World turned upside down

I can hear you screaming at me now. Are you saying I have to change my beautiful classroom display? But they fit so much more nicely when you use the space at the bottom for the wider range of options! The kids love it! How very dare you Jenkins!!

Well, tough, that’s what the Internet is for – to challenge and debate. And no one is telling you to change your classroom displays around. (Well, not yet – there’s an SLT meeting at the end of the week so don’t count your chickens). The kids are used to the way we all structure the various visuals pyramids around the place – so probably best to leave them be -for now. 

The reasoning behind my own switch round however is hopefully clear – that the base is where you have to start and work up. There is a reason that there is so much space around that full stop in the new version of the pyramid – its because there is so much space left to fill with other content. Take a look at the top of the pyramid now. It’s jam-packed, it’s varied, it’s concise. It’s Year 6 expected. 

Of course the fly in the ointment with all of these theories is that we are human beings and may not make naturally expected jumps – both in life or in SPAG tests. A diagram alone (sadly) can never sum up an individual pupil or their own learning patterns.  Sometimes pupils master the ellipsis before they’ve even got their question marks in order – just like there’s some debate about whether I really had my own health & safety needs as a first priority when I spent so much time in the pub while I was at college. (In hindsight possibly a reason why my understanding of French grammar wasn’t entirely up to scratch). It is however a handy guide, which is all as teachers we can usually ask for. 

We can use the pyramid principle (sounds catchy – I’m definitely using that in a CPD session in future) as another tool to help us guide pupils in whatever topic we happen to be working on. It’s differentiation boiled down to the nth degree and should give them a sense that we know where it is that the ship is supposed to be headed. 

Have a go with them, play around with your own versions if you wish. Then, once you’ve worked your way up through all your own layers of psychological discovery  – I’ll see you in the pub and we can all self actualise together. 🙂